Episode 10: CORRECTIONS

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Episode 10: CORRECTIONS by Jessica Harper

Jessica H: I'm Jessica Harper and this is episode 10 of WINNETKA.

Sam H: A few years before he died my father took me into his office and showed me a little pewter cup where he kept a key that opened a file cabinet in his office that he always kept locked, and he said to me “Everything you need to know is in that file cabinet.” And I assumed, um, what was in there was going to be mostly information about his finances, which he never talked about, and which we knew very little about.

Jessica H: Sam didn't think much about that file until years later after our father's death when he went to Dad's office with a different purpose.

Sam H: A few days after my dad died I went to his office in his home in Connecticut to find, to look for a memento or some kind, something I could take to remember him by. I don't know exactly what I was looking for, a pen, a book.

Jessica H: Then Sam remembered the file that Dad had mentioned. He reached for the pewter cup up on the shelf and took out a little key.

Sam H: I opened his file cabinet and there was a file in there, uh, that said “Family History,” so I pulled it out, and there were three things in the file. One was a very extensive family tree that showed all of his forebears dating back to the 1600s in England and Scotland, and showing where they settled in America, mostly in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. There was one branch of the family that went South to Virginia at first and then settled in Georgia, and, um, that, that branch of the family led directly to my father, who was eventually born in Chicago after his great-grandfather moved from Georgia to Chicago.

The second thing that I found was a will and testament left by William Harper, uh, in the state of Georgia, Lincoln County. He is my great-great-great-grandfather, and I'm going to read a little bit from the will. It says “I, William Harper, of the county and state of, of foresaid to do make, constitute, ordain and appoint this to be my last will and testament. First item, I lend to my beloved wife for, for and during the term of her natural life or widowhood the following property to wit, tracks of land to the North, blah-blah-blah, tracks of land in the South. Also, I leave the following Negros for the like term, to wit, Little Jacob, Skippyo, his wife Big Jenny, Little Jenny, her son Nicholas, Lydia, and her children Annie and Rosanna, Charlotte and child, Lucy and Sandy, Charles and Amy, and all of the plantation tools, blacksmith tools, cotton gin, and running gear and threshing machine. Also, a yoke oxen and half the stock of cattle of her own selection.”

Okay, I had heard about our southern roots in passing when I was growing up, and my grandfather got my brother and I confederate uniforms for our birthday when we were six or seven, but I certainly had no clue that my family past included slave owners. This was a truly, you know, horrifying revelation, and as horrifying as the slave bills of sale that I later found signed by William Harper, and the information that his son John Randolph Harper died fighting for the confederacy, uh, two weeks after the Civil War ended. So there it was, uh, documentation linking my family to slave owning.

The third item I found in the file was a program for the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights, Solider Field, June 21, 1964. On the cover of the program is a picture of the keynote speaker, Reverend Martin Luther King. Uh, inside the program there are a list of songs, um, that were going to be sung that day. “We Shall Not Be Moved,” “Everybody Sing Freedom,” and there is a document that you can use to sign up to pledge your support to work for civil rights and human dignity for all Americans. It took me a minute, but then I remembered that my oldest sister Diana was a civil rights worker in Chicago in the sixties, and worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, uh, which the Reverend Martin Luther King was associated with. What was really astounding about opening this file, other than the horrifying news that I'm related to slave owners was seeing the trajectory of a family in this aspect from a slave owner in the early 1800s to a civil rights worker in the 1960s. 150 years of family history between a slave owner and a civil rights worker in the same family. So I came to this room, you know, looking for a memento, something from my father to remember him by, and I found this story of our family and its evolution through its attitudes about race.

Jessica H: While the awful revolution about our family history was shocking enough in it of itself, it yielded a powerful aftershock when we noted the stunning contrast between Dad's family tree and Mom's.

As I've told you, Mom came from a family of gentleman. Unlike the Harpers, the Emery's sweet natured kindness and empathy were their key markers, and as it happens those traits go back for generations. The Reverend Richard Salter Storrs, my mother's great-grandfather came from a long line of congregational ministers from Connecticut and Massachusetts. Storrs himself was a minister of the Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn Heights from its founding in 1846 until his death in 1900. One day while he was traveling to Virginia in 1849 Reverend Storrs had an experience that changed the course of his life, and that today throws into stark relief the contrast between one side of my family and the other. Here's the story of what happened on that afternoon in Virginia as my great-great-grandfather told it in one of his sermons.

In 1849 I was converted to an intense hostility to slavery by an incident which I shall never forget, neither in this life nor in the immoralities. I was coming home from Richmond by rail, after a trip of some weeks through Virginia, to take the boat to Washington. When the boat came in people poured off it to take the train to Richmond. Behind them, under charge of a couple of men came about 20 or 30 colored children ranging in age from 8 to 10 years to perhaps 16 years. They were well fed, healthy looking children, comfortably clad, and at first I thought “Well, here comes a colored Sunday school.” Behind the children came a colored woman, no darker skin than many a brunette in the North and great tears rolled down her cheeks. A little child was clinging to her dress. In one hand she carried a bundle, and with her other she dragged along a sickly looking boy. Nearly every child had a little bundle.

As the woman came off the boat she looked me full in the face and I saw her grief, and then it came to me in a flash what this scene meant. Those children had been picked up the dealers around Washington and were being taken to Richmond, there to be scattered over the South from the auction marts in that city. That woman was on her way to separation from her children. I was hastening home to the bedside of a sick child and as I stood there I thought “Can anything make it right to sell a wife and child?” And I thought that I would be burned alive before I would consent to such a thing in my own case, and then I would be burned alive before I excuse or palliate a system which makes such a thing possible.

Richard Salter Storrs was devastated, but also galvanized into action by this experience. He became an eloquent abolitionist. In 1850 he delivered a celebrated speech railing against the fugitive slave act, and his Church of the Pilgrims became a reliable stop on the underground railroad. Storrs garnered so much respect in this community that he was asked to officiate at the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. And I wonder again about that theory of constancy of character which posits that personality traits can course through the branches of a family tree, emerging in ancestors for generations. Did the goodness of those gentle Emerys, mom's family, go back, way back to Reverend Storrs and beyond while the Harpers on their side had to struggle with the less desirable influences of their forebears?

Reverend Storr's daughter Miriam, my great-grandmother, brought another minister into the family when she married Philip Washburn. When he was diagnosed with tuberculosis he moved his family to Colorado Springs so that he could benefit from its restorative air. The Washburn's youngest daughter Eleanore, my grandmother Nana, grew up to marry Charles Emery. They settled in Denver and had five children, including my mother. So one day, on a Colorado ski slope when Paul Church Harper, a border at the Fountain Valley School was introduced to Eleanore Storrs Emery, a beautiful young woman in a green snowsuit it wasn't just boy meets girl, it was the coming together of two very different American stories.

Old Marine: (Cut back to Dad's funeral, from Episode 1.) Paul Harper, United States Marine Corp, departed.

Jessica H: Like an expert maître d' arranging an oversized dinner napkin, an old marine folded an American flag into a snug triangle. He did this while another old marine played Taps on a trumpet, and while these actions drew tears from even the most hard hearted of the dozens of people present, my mother remained dry eyed as the flag was handed to her. I wondered about this, after all the occasion was the funeral of my father Paul Harper, who had been a marine himself in World War 2, and also my mother's husband of 67 years. Well, maybe she was just shell shocked, or maybe it was because as Mom told me later, Dad had irritably said on his deathbed “I don't want anybody crying at my funeral.”

Dad's service took place at the First Congregational Church in Old Lyme, Connecticut. We, the Harper children, sat up on the dais facing the mourners. Many of us defied Dad's anti tears edict, as one by one we stood up and eulogized our father. We all show signs of ware and tear, but we've turned out alright. My little brother Sam is a Hollywood screenwriter with big family comedies like “Cheaper by the Dozen” to his credit. His twin brother Charlie was the fifth generation Harper to go to Yale when he went to their divinity school and became a minister, and he's now an addiction counselor in California. My little sister Lindsay DuPont is an immensely creative artist and illustrator living in New York, while my big sister Diana is an elder in a Christian community in remote Alaska, and my twin brother Billy, who's been known as William for many years has a PhD in Music and teaches at the Art Institute in Chicago. He's also a spectacular photographer.

I had struggled to come up with a eulogy for my father to find something to say that was unique, and true, and positive. In the end I spoke about his love of art, and my siblings extolled his passion for literature and history, and his humor and his drive. Only after the funeral when Sam opened that file cabinet to reveal our family history did I learn that there is something else one of us could have said about my father, about the thing he did for us that had the most value of all. I could have told our friends that we were the direct decedents of slave owners, and that racism has persisted in our family for a century after the Civil War, so that as small children we had frolicked in the fields behind Papa Harper's house with his black dog whose name was spelled N-I-G. Then I'd have told them that our father, so ashamed that he had always kept our history from us had made a correction. As I told you in the first episode, there's often wild disparity between the recollections we six kids have of our childhood experiences, but there is one subject on which our memories unite. It came up frequently when I recorded my sibling's stories, and that was that Dad abhorred racism.

Sam H: He was very clear with us that racism, prejudice was not acceptable.

Jessica H: He told us in calm, firm, articulate terms that we must never speak that word.

Charlie H: We were very much interested in the Civil War, but we were definitely Yankees.

Jessica H: Did Dad encourage that affiliation?

Charlie H: Absolutely. There was a very strong understanding.

Sam H: I got a five minute lecture on racism in America.

Charlie H: The Yankees had it right, and certainly slavery was a disgusting institution.

Jessica H: He explained what a racial epithet was and the harm it causes, the evil it perpetuates-

Sam H: And how none of that was acceptable in our house.

Jessica H: And yes, you could say that many thoughtful parents of that era would have taught their children the same lessons, but Dad did so while taking on our family history and the living embodiment of it, his own father Papa Harper, so the issue had personal weight and urgency.

Dad saw to it that his children, and their children and future generations would never think or act as his father and forebears had. That evil thread would stop with him. The result of his efforts is there in that file that Sam discovered with its family tree, the will and the rally program. Our shameful history literally rubs up against the evidence of change. Luckily, we all get to make corrections in our lives. I grew up wary of family life, putting it off until after a long acting career, and then I married Tom, a man whose daily tender display of love for our children was such that it sometimes moved me to tears. Those tears would resurface when Tom and I took our girls to visit my parents in Connecticut and our young daughters were able to do a thing I had never done in my life. Without hesitation they jumped from the car, ran up the driveway and threw themselves into my father's arm, giving and confident they'd receive the unconditional love that they were accustomed to. This made both me and my father very happy.

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